The Larceny of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Legacy
Our infatuation with the “idea” of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has stunted our eagerness to lean into the unapologetic aspects of his work. Many have conveniently parceled his thoughts found least palatable by larger society. King’s most popular ideology has been pushed front and center by the very political actors who were threatened by King’s civil rights fight success. True, MLK was a black man who fought for all to love each other despite the historically vicious harm heaped upon black folks, but we cannot ignore the fact that he was so wounded by his country that his autopsy revealed at 39 years old King had amassed the heart of a person in their 60s. A fact likely due to the stresses of directly leading the Civil Rights Movement and living as a black man forced to struggle under the regime of white supremacy and friendly ally denial. His most quoted speeches and posthumous perception of supreme peacefulness, silence the radical freedom, anti-war and work for economic equality King was marching towards near the end of his life.
King’s most transformative gift was in his genius ability to center the needs of those most ignored by the policies of elected officials, while holding many of those elected officials accountable for their neglect towards a large swath of their constituency — Black folks. It is perplexing that so many are still duped by leaders who have no true interest in moving the dial for justice, but present themselves as agents for change. They tease words like “opportunity” and “access”, then choose to do next to nothing to move those who are in the greatest need from the margins of poverty to prosperity. The dogmas of racial and class complacency were exposed by the international uprisings in response to the state sanctioned police murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis, MN. The world bore witness to the spawn King’s more radical resistance. We seemed to be on the brink of a monumental emotional, intellectual and social shift that would unearth the racial and economic systemic biases that pervades our school systems and the corporate oligarchy. However what seemed like a new movement had proven merely a moment. King warned us that commitments to change would need far stronger reinforcements than Black Lives Matter signs in suburban enclaves, and even those grow harder to spot by the day. The current political calculus doesn’t have enough moral bandwidth to keep our nation’s most ignored citizens basic humanity in the forefront of our collective psyche, let alone to honestly recall the threats, blackmail, and government vitriol Rev. Dr. King endured after the Voting Rights Act passed.
Despite our best efforts to politely discuss inequity and aid the less fortunate, we have given license to a norm that blames the oppressed for their oppression. King cautioned against simply throwing money at the problem, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary”. From the Alex Haley Interviews published in January 1965 King says, “Can any fair-minded citizen deny that the Negro has been deprived? Few people reflect that for two centuries the Negro was enslaved and robbed of any wages — potential accrued wealth which would have been the legacy of his descendants. All of America’s wealth today could not adequately compensate its Negroes for his centuries of exploitation and humiliation.” Piercing statements clearly akin to the musings of Critical Race theorists. W.E.B. Du Bois argued that racism defined Black peoples’ lives. The work of King’s sunset years exposed the dynamics of inequality, and subsequently balanced the existing system, reminiscent of Du Bois’ “double consciousness” theoretical framework. The socio-historical aspect of Du Bois’ race philosophy accounts for a shared group experience and cumulative culture, economic and political conditions. King observed in 1967 that “the doctrine of white supremacy was embedded in every textbook and preached in practically every pulpit,” entrenched as “a structural part of the culture.”
Our communities have normalized the creation and celebration of the event, erection of a monument or the sound byte of today’s news cycle, but have failed to work arduously to upend the root causes and the lingering vestiges of the harm that remains in tangled toxic systems. Progress is further compromised when good white comrades don’t call out the commodification of King by folks of the same ilk of those who organized and enabled the January 6 insurrectionists. Just recently during the vaudeville performance, better known as The House of Representatives vote for Speaker, we were subjected to the dilution of King’s dream of cooperative action to the point that it was unrecognizable and seemed unattainable. We need our enlightened white friends and neighbors to address this hubris while understanding the grave consequences that come with the deliberate underpinning of white washing King’s full brilliance. Is our larger populist aware that many of the same folks who are quoting King have unashamedly ignored the nuance of his timeless work and his tireless, elegant agitation? Referred to as a “traitor” by conservatives in 1967 and 1968, many of these GOP charlatan character traits can can still be found in our current right wing; those who hold elected office and may not outwardly refer to King as a “demagogue”, but understand why narrowing the conversation around King’s legacy prevents convicted allegiance to all of the dreams he felt possible. The despicable irony of Trump’s Republican party is that they claim to champion the hard working man while maintaining financial oligarchs. They seek to set moral and ethical standards via policy, yet have zero standards for their own values and behavior. Conversely, the haphazard execution of our progressive friends stall bold efforts that lift the conversation on racism as a mental health crisis, The Office of Black Male Advancement, or the formation of an intentional design to support Families of Color. Initiatives that offer a step forward, but ultimately fail to realize results beyond inception. It is blasphemous for any community that prides itself on the teaching of King to be afraid to, at the minimum, pilot the 1619 project within a segment of its schools considering the ways in which King so eloquently weaved historical context into his speeches. We have sadly commodified and homogenized this giant for political gain, and we must shift our thinking of King if we are to disrupt the manacles of injustice and laissez faire activism cloaked in wokeness. We can no longer accept the ineffectiveness of our systems; school systems, housing systems, economic systems, systems of law enforcement; without the understanding that each of these branches can only act in a nefarious manner if they opt for the status quo. Simply stating that the system’s schools are creating a safe environment for its black and brown children is not enough, especially when they continue to languish in comparison to their white counterparts. Oftentimes already under a vice between communal violence and the recurring nightmare of state sanctioned violence by the hands of law enforcement. We need to awaken ourselves to King’s warning, “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.”
King died while assembling a unionized group of predominantly black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, a community that remains grossly ignored by the country’s political power structure. Today, we are witnessing over 6,000 Amazon workers (predominately black) in places such as Bessemer, Alabama. King gave his last speech, “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop” on April 3, 1968 something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — “We want to be free.” He called for continued protests, community unity, police disarmament, the power of economic withdrawal and bank-ins as a pathway to sweeping Black justice, and justice for all. A man deemed worthy of monuments, a national holiday, streets and schools in his name is surely worthy of a full and true remembering of his vision. We are worth taking task to the work he left blueprints for.
Tony Clark is a Professor of African American Literature, Co-Founder of The My Brother’s Keeper Task Force, and Principal of The T.Clark Consulting Group